The question now is not if the United States will return to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but when. Notwithstanding reports that the Biden administration has too much on its plate right now to move up talks with Tehran as a priority, it certainly seems like that process is underway. That would send Washington back to the table for the first time since an agreement was concluded in 2015.
The Trump administration withdrew from the pact in May 2018, citing inherent weaknesses and loopholes on such issues as Iran’s ballistic-missile program, snap inspections of nuclear sites and sunset clauses, as well as its malign behavior in the region. In tandem with that decision, it imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, including a series of sanctions on an array of Iranian political, quasi-military and commercial figures and front organizations.
The regime in Tehran has clearly been waiting for the day these policies will be reversed and has positioned itself steadily over the past few months by playing hard-to-get. Reverting to form and week by week, it has generated new developments designed to make Western negotiators (the “P-5+1” made up of the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia, plus Germany) nervous.
First, it was increasing enrichment of nuclear fuel to the 20 percent level, followed by reports of the installation of more advanced centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear installation. That was followed by reports that Iran had begun production of uranium metal, which can be used as a component in nuclear weapons.
All of these developments are in breach of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement touted as keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but in fact only sidelining it because of sunset clauses that are getting near to expiration by the day.
Less than two weeks ago, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported on a list of seven conditions laid out by Tehran that must be met before it returns to a negotiating table. Among them, the demand that the United States lift all sanctions imposed against it; that there be no connection made between Iran’s nuclear program and other issues, such as its ballistic-missile program or its support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas; that it will not permit other regional actors to enter into the JCPOA discussions; and that it refuses to back a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.
Already, angst on the part of our P-5+1 partners is being felt. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said Iran “is in the process of acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity,” due largely to the previous administration’s maximum pressure policy. He called for a quick resumption of the JCPOA talks.
That begs a question: If the original agreement, in which France was a participant, was as watertight as it was marketed at the time, why is Iran moving headlong into developing nuclear weapons?
The answer lies elsewhere, in plain view. As the treasure trove of documents on Iran’s nuclear program—ferreted out of Tehran by Israeli agents in 2018 show—the Iranian regime never had any intention of exiting the nuclear-weapons business to begin with. With stealth and a measure of patience unknown in the West, Iran has been willing to wait out “maximum pressure” while raising the temperatures of its threats and its international bullying, hoping that appearance of its headlong drive to produce a weapon will instill enough trepidation for the P5+1 to prematurely offer a basket of incentives, including the removal of sanctions, to return to the table.
The Biden administration has said that before there is any resumption of talks with Tehran, it must return to full compliance with its assurances on enrichment, the installation of centrifuges and the production of uranium metal, among other provisions.
But so brazen is Tehran in believing that the P5+1 is eager to have it back at the negotiating table that the leading Iranian nuclear official recently told the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) that in order to prevent “any misunderstanding,” it should avoid publishing “unnecessary details” of its nuclear program.
Much has been written of late about how much things have changed on the ground, and that lessons have been learned since the JCPOA agreement was announced five years ago.
Time passes quickly: Sunset clauses agreed to in 2015, after which Iran can proceed with its objective of producing nuclear weapons, are now five years closer to expiration. Iran continues to pursue a ballistic-missile program unfettered.
It also continues to build up Hezbollah’s arsenal with shipments of precision-guided missiles and to be present in Syria, where it has no business other than to expand it hegemonistic objectives. Its terrorist friends and proxies—Hamas in Gaza, and the Houthis in Yemen—are also beneficiaries of its cash and weapons. It is seeking to establish a naval presence in the Mediterranean. And the regime remains a serial abuser of the rights of women, LGBTI, juvenile offenders and, of course, its political opponents.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by that the Iranians are not making genocidal threats “to level Tel Aviv and Haifa,” and calling for the “Zionist cancer” to be excised. Policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin may pass this off as simply rhetoric for home consumption, but Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere take it seriously. If an Iranian bomb were to become a reality, these threats would dramatically affect the stability of the entire region.
Iran’s intentionally ratcheting up its threats and its nuclear program tells us precisely about its real intentions. If it feels pressure to agree to talks on an “improved JCPOA agreement,” in its mind it needs to be wired in such a way as to repeat what happened in 2015—gain advance concessions in exchange for talks, and then to prevaricate and obfuscate its way into another loophole-filled agreement that will be just enough to satisfy our nervous partners in Europe.
Iran has demonstrated—and not only in these past five years—that it cannot be trusted. Our objective should be to put it permanently out of the nuclear-weapons business. It is on that objective that our eagerness should be focused.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is the CEO of B’nai B’rith International. As the organization’s top executive officer, he directs and supervises B’nai B’rith programs, activities and staff around the world.
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